Engaging the Cloud

What makes a college or university special? Academics, a knowledgeable teaching staff, a competitive environment, and the know-how to prepare students for careers in respective fields are just a few of the key reasons why people seek a college education. Today’s students demand a lot more from their collegiate experience than they would have 10 or 15 years ago. They expect colleges to offer competitive courses and be current on the latest trends. Colleges need to keep up with those demands.

How do colleges exceed their students’ expectations, maintain their competitiveness, and still manage to stay within a budget? The answer is cloud computing.

Unlike traditional computing, where services and information are delivered directly to your computer, cloud computing delivers services, applications, and data via a web browser. The result of having services, like email, accessible by the web is that organizations do not have the expense of purchasing additional software or hardware. For many organizations, their services are delivered via Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). With SaaS, a provider supplies and hosts the hardware and software, freeing up an organization from the restraints of actually housing and maintaining the infrastructure components. The key benefit, aside from not having to maintain software and hardware, is that the organization can access its data, services, and applications from any location at any time.

An “Elastic” System
Since there is no need to purchase additional hardware or software to reap the benefits of what cloud computing offers, institutions pay for the service as they go and only use what they need when they require it. 

For example, registration for classes can be a nightmare for a college’s IT department if thousands of students are trying to nail down courses for the following semester at the exact same time. Students might be trying to sign up for a philosophy class in a campus hallway on laptops or on their iPhones across the country. How does the school’s computer system handle a peak load at this level?

Colleen McMillan, the global director of the public sector, vertical marketing development, at VMware, a cloud infrastructure provider, explains, “There’s no need for the proverbial ‘man behind the curtain’ having to flip a switch. Cloud computing enables a college to use resources on an as-needed basis. If a specific service like semester course registration requires added computing resources, the system automatically recognizes this and provides the needed power.”

A cloud computing system is “elastic,” meaning it has the flexibility to add resources as needed during peak times and remove them when they aren’t being used. The result is that the system is always working properly, and even when a high volume event occurs, users connected to the network will not see any difference in quality of service.

Lone Star College System (LSCS), a two-year community college system located in northern Houston, has 85,000 credited students. Prior to cloud computing, LSCS suffered system issues during peak events like course registration. Link Alander, interim CIO for LSCS says, “In the past, we would tell our finance and human resources departments not to run any reports or implement any tasks that could tax the computer system because our students would be registering for their next semester classes, and a system failure could spell disaster for our institution.”

But the cloud has changed all of that as peak computing events no longer bog down the system.

New Advances in Learning
Schools often face a double-edged sword. While they are expected to be as sophisticated and up-to-date in terms of what they can offer the students they enroll, these schools often are stuck in a rut, utilizing the same type of learning environment for decades.

Cloud infrastructure changes that by allowing for collaborative learning. Instead of the traditional classroom setting where students sit listening to a professor lecture, they are involved in their own education. Using tools like Google Docs, Skype, and Google+ encourages a collaborative learning environment.

Christopher Johnson, instructional technologist at the Crummer Graduate School of Business, Rollins College, adds, “A cloud-based collaborative learning system is flexible and cloud services allow for organic growth. The cloud lets students learn in a rich online environment.”

Cost-Effective Solution

Institutions can see valuable cost savings when they move to a cloud-based infrastructure. Hardware servers require proper temperatures in the rooms where they are housed. That equates to a great expense in terms of heating and cooling costs. Because cloud networks are not affected by temperature changes, these expenses are slashed.

Plus, schools don’t have to purchase additional servers. Before cloud computing, adding scalability to a network required implementing more hardware. In addition to the expense involved in purchasing new servers, an IT department had to figure out where to accommodate more computer hardware.

LSCS realized approximately $600,000 in CAPEX cost savings almost immediately after utilizing cloud computing. Moving its services to the cloud enabled LSCS to consolidate its over 800 physical servers into 70 host servers.

Evolving IT Administration
Mt. Hood Community College (MHCC) in Oregon enrolls 33,000 students annually across three campuses. Although the College had moved into the 21st century, its course evaluation system had not.

MHCC was still using a paper-based course evaluation system just a couple of years ago. Assessing its classes and analyzing feedback from students could take months. “The scanner we were using for our course evaluations was old and constantly needed to be repaired,” says Ray Christner, data analyst at MHCC. It took up to eight weeks before the results were available to review. Finally, the paperwork would require archiving, which resulted in the need for space.

MHCC implemented a SaaS-based system provided by CollegeNET following a pilot program in the summer of 2010. The school now can access evaluation results immediately, making it much easier to implement changes to its curriculum. Overall, the College has seen a savings in administrative time.

In Houston, LSCS has seen similar benefits, which then filters down the chain to the students. “Cloud computing has freed up my IT staff. My staff now manages critical services for our institution,” Alander states. Since the maintenance tasks have been reduced, Alander’s IT department can now deliver better support services to the college.

Keeping Critical Data Safe
Security and management of data can be huge concerns when looking to move to the cloud. When discussions turn to cloud computing, there are often concerns about where that data is going. Will it be safe?

The answer is yes. Data transmitted to and from the cloud is encrypted to keep it secure. “[Higher education organizations] worry that the third-party provider that hosts their services will have the ability to access the data. However, the information is encrypted and inaccessible to others,” explains Fadi Albatal, vice president of marketing at FalconStor, a company that specializes in storage and data protection offerings.

Cloud infrastructure offers the benefit of disaster recovery. A fire, a flood, or other event might shut a school down for days, weeks, or even longer. Cloud infrastructure, however, is not impacted because data can simply be shifted to another location, enabling IT operations to be back up and running quickly. Albatal adds, “Clients realize that they can continue to operate from the cloud, and disaster recovery capabilities are actually helping with cloud infrastructure adoption.”

Reach for the Clouds
Cloud infrastructure promotes 
agility for the higher education sector 
by enabling organizations to adapt to 
and handle changes including increases 
in student enrollment, attracting a 
quality teaching staff, and promoting automation. 

Cloud computing also encourages colleges to reach their maximum potential with the resources they already have in place while also boosting cost savings. When schools are running efficiently and spending less money on unnecessary IT services, their dollars can be better spent on the education that they provide to their students. 

Karen Spring has been a technical writer for more than 10 years. She began her career working as a marketing specialist for two computer distributors, handling projects for clients including Acer, IBM, and Okidata. She also worked as a senior editor for an IT publishing and consulting firm. Ms. Spring has written technical reports on Microsoft products and contributes to a weekly newsletter that highlights network and Internet security topics.